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Cold War Confusions:
Kissinger and the Kennedy Administration

The Bay of Pigs Invasion

Professor Kissinger became an advisor to Nelson Rockefeller, Rockefeller having political ambitions. Then he gained a position as advisor in the Kennedy administration, despite remaining, as Ferguson writes, "at heart a Rockefeller loyalist." Kissinger, according to Ferguson, "was just one of a remarkable number of Harvard academics who went to work for Kennedy" (another Harvard man, like Ferguson).

Kissinger's expertise was thought to be Germany, his place of birth and where he was security officer after having been sent to Europe with the US Army in 1944.

Kennedy inherited the CIA's plan for the invasion of Cuba. Kissinger was still an anti-Communist hawk. Ferguson describes Kissinger as still believing that losing territory to Communist governments "would be a greater evil than fighting back." Ferguson quotes Kissinger:

We cannot permit further shrinking of the areas of freedom. Here we must stand, We are coming to a point of no return – like a man half way down the ski run and near the jump who is going too fast to stop. If we don't stand in Cuba, Laos and Berlin, we have so undermined the confidence of the free world group that no one will stand with us....

We must organize and train for democratic leadership all over the world....

In the absence of a hemisphere police force, we in the US must exercise police authority until such a force exists... (p 472)

Surprise! The Cubans did not rise up in support of the invasion by Cuban exiles as the CIA expected. Kennedy was disgusted by what he saw as the failure and the stupidity of the invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

The invaders found a common explanation for their failure: they had been betrayed – in other words, stabbed in the back. They blamed Kennedy for not having sent help – although Kennedy had never promised it. Kennedy, they said, lacked cojones (balls). A counter-theory is that the CIA plan had been unrealistic.

Kennedy blamed the CIA, but he also asked how he could have been "so stupid." Before the end of 1961 he fired Allen Dulles and his deputy, Richard Bissell, but publicly he took responsibility for the failure, with familiar words about failures being orphans.

The Berlin Wall

Kennedy met the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in early June 1961 for what was planned as an informal exchange of views. Kennedy shared Kissinger's view that the Soviet Union was bent on fomenting revolution around the world – a view reinforced by Khrushchev's pledge in January 1961 to assist movements of national liberation.

Khrushchev was supporting the Soviet-created regime in what had been the Soviet zone in Germany – known as East Germany. A wall was being planned to prevent people in East Germany moving to West Germany. At Vienna, Khrushchev confronted Kennedy with a threat to sign a peace agreement with East Germany that would impinge on Western access to Berlin. Khrushchev said that the Soviet Union "would never, under any conditions, accept US rights in West Berlin" after it had signed a peace treaty with East Germany. (Frederick Kempe, Berlin 1961, p 247).

Here was more of the nibbling that Kissinger feared.

Khrushchev told Kennedy that "force will be met by force," that it was for the United States to decide whether there will be war or peace and that his decision to sign a peace treaty with East Germany was irrevocable. Khrushchev gave Kennedy an ultimatum, and Kennedy replied, "Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be a war. It will be a cold, long winter."

Kennedy described Khrushchev as thinking "I'm inexperienced and have no guts. Until we remove those ideas we won't get anywhere with him. So we have to act." (Kempe, p 258)

On August 13, 1961, East Germany began closing the border between West and East Berlin, beginning with barbed wire. The East German leader, Ulbricht, made a speech blaming his action on West Germany's "systematic plans for a civil war" which he said were "being executed by "revenge-seeking and militaristic forces." Ulbricht said he was closing the border for the "sole purpose" of providing security for East German citizens. The official name for the "Berlin Wall" was the "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.

Kennedy asked an aide, Kenneth O'Donnell, "Why would Khrushchev put up a wall if he really intended to seize West Berlin?" Kennedy did not hide his relief and added: "A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war." A member of the Kennedy administration, Arthur Schlesinger Jr and Kennedy's ambassador to the Soviet Union, E. Llewellyn Thompson, were opposed to those who wanted to play a game of chicken regarding the use of nuclear weapons. Schlesinger was also opposed to the idea that Khrushchev would be deterred only by a demonstration of US readiness to go to nuclear war. 

This was up Kissinger's ally regarding diplomacy and war, but Kissinger was not called upon. Kissinger was to describe himself as just an observer during the crisis. His expertise regarding history and diplomacy appeared unwanted.

That August, Khrushchev was attending the 22nd Congress of the Soviet Union's Communist Party. Ho Chi Minh, Zhou En-lai and America's Elizabeth Gurley Flynn were welcomed visitors. The Congress was important to Khrushchev regarding his political survival. Khrushchev's major opposition was critical of his armed forces reductions and his softness toward dangers from the capitalist West. At the Congress, spoke of creating communism in twenty years. He predicted that the Soviet Union would be producing three pairs of shoes per person per year and that by 1980 it would surpass the US economically.

At the Congress, he also announced a point of conciliation with the West, saying that he would drop his insistence on signing a peace treaty with East Germany because, he explained, Kennedy had shown that Western powers "were disposed to seek a settlement" on Berlin. Then Khrushchev spoke of nuclear testing that was going well and announced that a hydrogen bomb was to be tested. The delegates shot to their feet and applauded.

At the border between East and West Berlin, Khrushchev backed his tanks from a confrontation with US tanks, saying that he was giving the US an opportunity to withdraw without losing face. The Americans withdrew, and matters in Berlin returned to what had become a new normal.

Khrushchev countered disappointments about standing up to the US, expressed by Castro and Guevara, by saying that he and his colleagues were opposed to a "beautiful death."

People in West Berlin were also disappointed with the West's weak response to the border closing incident and the wall. Some Germans trapped in East Germany would die trying to escape. The Soviet Union was losing the propaganda competition between the rival systems, and the Berlin Wall was destined to be a propaganda burden. Kennedy in June 1963 would receive a hero's welcome in Berlin by Germans looking to the US as a force for freedom, and Kennedy gave his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962

In an agreement with the Castro regime, the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev decided to protect Cuba from another US sponsored invasion by putting missiles in Cuba. Cuba, he believed, had a right to defend itself. He believed that the Kennedy administration would make a fuss and then accept it, just as he and his Soviet colleagues accepted US missiles aimed at the Soviet Union in Turkey.

Khrushchev discussed the matter with Cuba's Che Guevara and told him, "You don't have to worry; there will be no big reaction from the US." He was wrong. Kennedy was outraged. What followed was the closest that the US and USSR came to nuclear war. Kennedy issued an ultimatum demanding the Soviets withdraw their missiles. He imposed a blockade to halt further naval shipments of military hardware to Cuba. Russians in Cuba shot down as U2 spy plane over Cuba. US military leaders were dismayed by Kennedy's reluctance to retaliate. General Curtis LeMay was furious. He described Kennedy's position "as almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich." LeMay declared that "if we don't do anything to Cuba, then they're going to push on Berlin, and push hard because they've got us on the run." LeMay said that he saw no solution "except direct military action right now." The Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke against conciliation. A Marine general spoke of Communist trickery. He said that, "Khrushchev, like doctrinaire Communists before him is a slavish follower of Sun Tzu," who believed in pretended accommodation while secretly preparing to attack. LeMay and his colleagues called for air strikes against thousands of military targets in Cuba and a ground invasion in seven days. 

War was avoided as Kennedy ignored the nonsense – as he did Kissinger's credo about an unwavering determination to stand up Communist aggression. Kennedy had support from Britain's Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan. There were Intense exchanges between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Khrushchev sent a personal letter to Kennedy and announced over Radio Moscow that he had agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba. And, secretly, Kennedy agreed to remove missiles directed against the Soviet Union that were positioned in Turkey.

PLEASE CONTINUE to "Cold War Confusions: Henry Kissinger and US Policy in Vietnam, to 1969."

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.